Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

A Chinese President Visits the United States – Where are the Arendtians?

xi jinping

By Peter Baehr

“I do not doubt that in the very long run, the whole of Asia will fall under Chinese influence but not necessarily under Chinese domination.”

-- Hannah Arendt, Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is fertile territory for Arendt scholars. But, as President Xi Jinping visits the United States this week, where are they? Students of Arendt are acute observers of unfolding refugee crises, human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing and a myriad of other ills. China, on the other hand, has almost entirely escaped their notice. No one can claim it is not visible.

Peter Baehr
Peter Baehr is Professor of Social Theory at Lingnan University Hong Kong. He is editor of The Viking Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin: 2000), the author of Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences (Stanford University Press: 2010), and the co-editor (with Philip Walsh) of The Anthem Companion to Hannah Arendt (Anthem: forthcoming 2016). Current interests include the history of the concept of unmasking since the French Revolution, and the political writings of the British critic, Rebecca West.

Amor Mundi 8/23/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upAfter Trigger Warnings

trigger warningGreg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, writing in The Atlantic on students' demands for college courses and syllabi to have trigger warnings that inform them of potentially distressing material before they actually need to encounter it, track the rise of the trigger warning and wonder what effect it might have on college graduates: "What are the effects of this new protectiveness on the students themselves? Does it benefit the people it is supposed to help? What exactly are students learning when they spend four years or more in a community that polices unintentional slights, places warning labels on works of classic literature, and in many other ways conveys the sense that words can be forms of violence that require strict control by campus authorities, who are expected to act as both protectors and prosecutors? There's a saying common in education circles: Don't teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding. But vindictive protectiveness teaches students to think in a very different way. It prepares them poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong. The harm may be more immediate, too. A campus culture devoted to policing speech and punishing speakers is likely to engender patterns of thought that are surprisingly similar to those long identified by cognitive behavioral therapists as causes of depression and anxiety. The new protectiveness may be teaching students to think pathologically."


melancholyCarina del Valle Schorske notes a striking mirroring in the way we talk about depression: "Both stigmatization and sanctification come with real ethical dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger that hidden in the wish for the elimination of depressive symptoms is a wish for the elimination of other essential attributes of the depressed person--her posture of persistent critique, her intolerance for small talk. On the other hand there is the danger of taking pleasure in the pain of the melancholic, and of adding the expectation of insight to the already oppressive expectations the melancholic likely has for herself. But these ethical dangers are not simply imposed on the unfortunate person from the outside. It is not only the culture at large that oscillates between understanding psychological suffering as a sign of genius and a mark of shame. The language used in both discourses bears a striking resemblance to the language the depressed person uses in her own head."  

Looking for a New Home

elon muskSue Halpern in the New York Review of Books considers the grandiose vision of Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and SpaceX, Musk's latest project to colonize Mars. "An even more significant connection is this: while Musk is working to move people away from fossil fuels, betting that the transition to electric vehicles and solar energy will contain the worst effects of global climate change, he is hedging that bet with one that is even more wishful and quixotic. In the event that those terrestrial solutions don't pan out and civilization is imperiled, Musk is positioning SpaceX to establish a human colony on Mars. As its website explains: 'SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this possible, with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.' 'The key thing for me,' Musk told a reporter for The Guardian in 2013, 'is to develop the technology to transport large numbers of people and cargo to Mars.... There's no rush in the sense that humanity's doom is imminent; I don't think the end is nigh. But I do think we face some small risk of calamitous events. It's sort of like why you buy car or life insurance. It's not because you think you'll die tomorrow, but because you might.' To be clear, Musk is not envisioning a colony of a few hundred settlers on the Red Planet, but one on the order of Hawthorne, California, the 80,000-plus industrial city outside of Los Angeles where SpaceX has its headquarters."

But Is There Money In It?

music internet economySteven Johnson suggests that the internet economy, which came with an increased ease in pirating and sharing art and entertainment, hasn't been as harmful to artists as some would like to believe: "The trouble with this argument is that it has been based largely on anecdote, on depressing stories about moderately successful bands that are still sharing an apartment or filmmakers who can't get their pictures made because they refuse to pander to a teenage sensibility. When we do see hard data about the state of the culture business, it usually tracks broad industry trends or the successes and failures of individual entertainment companies. That data isn't entirely irrelevant, of course; it's useful to know whether the music industry is making more or less money than it did before Ulrich delivered his anti-Napster testimony. But ultimately, those statistics only hint at the most important question. The dystopian scenario, after all, isn't about the death of the record business or Hollywood; it's about the death of music or movies. As a society, what we most want to ensure is that the artists can prosper--not the record labels or studios or publishing conglomerates, but the writers, musicians, directors and actors themselves. Their financial fate turns out to be much harder to measure, but I endeavored to try. Taking 1999 as my starting point--the year both Napster and Google took off--I plumbed as many data sources as I could to answer this one question: How is today's creative class faring compared with its predecessor a decade and a half ago? The answer isn't simple, and the data provides ammunition for conflicting points of view. It turns out that Ulrich was incontrovertibly correct on one point: Napster did pose a grave threat to the economic value that consumers placed on recorded music. And yet the creative apocalypse he warned of has failed to arrive. Writers, performers, directors and even musicians report their economic fortunes to be similar to those of their counterparts 15 years ago, and in many cases they have improved. Against all odds, the voices of the artists seem to be louder than ever."  

amor_mundi_sign-upMaybe We Do Want Privacy After All

privacyEven as people complain about the erosion of privacy, they continue to use websites and devices that compromise their personal data and to support the governmental use of surveillance in the name of security. This has led many marketers and defenders of surveillance to suggest that privacy is simply not a real concern. A new study by Joseph Turow, Michael Hennessy, and Nora Draper complicates that assumption: "New Annenberg survey results indicate that marketers are misrepresenting a large majority of Americans by claiming that Americans give out information about themselves as a tradeoff for benefits they receive. To the contrary, the survey reveals most Americans do not believe that 'data for discounts' is a square deal. The findings also suggest, in contrast to other academics' claims, that Americans' willingness to provide personal information to marketers cannot be explained by the public's poor knowledge of the ins and outs of digital commerce. In fact, people who know more about ways marketers can use their personal information are more likely rather than less likely to accept discounts in exchange for data when presented with a real-life scenario. Our findings, instead, support a new explanation: a majority of Americans are resigned to giving up their data--and that is why many appear to be engaging in tradeoffs. Resignation occurs when a person believes an undesirable outcome is inevitable and feels powerless to stop it. Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. Our study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened. By misrepresenting the American people and championing the tradeoff argument, marketers give policymakers false justifications for allowing the collection and use of all kinds of consumer data often in ways that the public find objectionable. Moreover, the futility we found, combined with a broad public fear about what companies can do with the data, portends serious difficulties not just for individuals but also--over time--for the institution of consumer commerce." If privacy is to be protected, it is important to ask why privacy matters. That is the theme of the Hannah Arendt Center's upcoming fall conference. You can register to attend here.

How Transparent Should Government Be?

edward snowdenFrancis Fukuyama writing in the Financial Times argues that we should be suspicious of the cult of transparency even as he is supportive of Edward Snowden's revelations. There are, he argues, limits to transparency. "Given that 'transparency' has such positive connotations, it is hard to imagine a reversal of these measures. But the public interest would not be served if the internal deliberations of the US Federal Reserve or the Supreme Court were put on CSPAN, as some have demanded. Legislators and officials must preserve deliberative space, just as families need to protect their privacy when debating their finances or how to deal with a wayward child. And they need to be able to do so without donning a straitjacket of rules specifying how they must talk to each other, and to citizens." There may be dangers to transparency, yet David Brin, one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Arendt Center fall conference "Why Privacy Matters," argues the opposing view in his book The Transparent Society: only transparency can in the end preserve both privacy and liberty. We encourage you to learn more about Brin and register for the conference.

Hail to the Chief's Mixtape

obama mixtapeHua Hsu listens to President Obama's recent Spotify playlists: "Perhaps, as Bernie Sanders harrumphed when asked about his hair, idle focus on the leisure-time enthusiasms of politicians is just a ruse to distract us from what actually matters. But the playlists were a reminder of Obama's influence on American culture and of the way he has become a sort of lifestyle brand thanks to his Administration's indefatigable efforts to put him wherever young people might see him, from the late-night establishment and ESPN to the comparatively niche audiences of Vice News, 'Between Two Ferns,' and 'WTF.' Once, Bill Clinton pantomimed cool by playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall Show; now, we have a President who seems intent on proving that he's not too cool for the occasional Coldplay song...At a time when so many of our everyday choices get gussied up in the language of 'curation,' playlists and d.j.s (particularly celebrity d.j.s) have taken on an elevated role. The playlist has become a kind of biographical shorthand, a way of communicating something essential about ourselves through the performance of taste. Of course, taste and relatability mean something different when they involve someone with drones at his disposal. These are playlists meant to convey a set of values: knowledge of the past, an open ear, an interest in the future. There are the safe, modern-day crowd-pleasers like the Lumineers and Florence and the Machine alongside relative obscurities like Low Cut Connie and Aoife O'Donovan. There is no Linkin Park. And of course there is Beyoncé's 'Superpower,' because even the most powerful leader in the world wouldn't dare snub the most beloved human on the planet."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #12

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



why privacy matters title cardSAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters: What Do We Lose When We Lose Our Privacy?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

**UPDATE** Registration for our conference is now open! Save your seat for this exciting two-day event here!

Thursday, October 15 and Friday, October 16, 2015

Olin Hall, Bard College, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Samantha Hill discusses how Donald Trump and Jon Stewart both tap into a desire among the American public for truth in politics in the Quote of the Week. William Henry Bragg reflects on how science interacts with facts in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate the annotations Hannah Arendt made to her copy of Baruch Spinoza's Ethics in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Amor Mundi 4/19/15


Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

amor_mundi_sign-upIntelligence and Inhumanity

holocaust remembrance dayDirector of the FBI James B. Comey requires his agents to visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC. He explains why in a speech he gave on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past week. "The Holocaust was, as I said, the most horrific display in world history of inhumanity. But it was also the most horrific display in world history of our humanity, of our capacity for evil and for moral surrender. And that second significance is the reason I require every new FBI special agent and intelligence analyst to go to the Holocaust Museum. Naturally, I want them to learn about abuse of authority on a breathtaking scale. But I want them to confront something more painful and more dangerous: I want them to see humanity and what we are capable of. I want them to see that, although this slaughter was led by sick and evil people, those sick and evil leaders were joined by, and followed by, people who loved their families, took soup to a sick neighbor, went to church and gave to charity. Good people helped murder millions. And that's the most frightening lesson of all--that our very humanity made us capable of, even susceptible to, surrendering our individual moral authority to the group, where it can be hijacked by evil. Of being so cowed by those in power. Of convincing ourselves of nearly anything." If Comey doesn't mention Arendt's thesis concerning the banality of evil, the resonances are clear. It might be worth noting that while Arendt would agree with Comey about the need to fight both sick and evil leaders and their normal followers, she had serious reservations about doing so through spying and surveillance.  

Privacy and Individualism

privacyYou have no privacy. Get over it. Such sentiments are now cliché and represent the sense of many. Both the government and corporations offer security and convenience in return for our most intimate information, and over and over we provide that information. While many bemoan the loss of privacy, pitifully few take any actions to protect their privacy. Which raises the question: "Why Does Privacy Matter?" This is the question we will ask at the Hannah Arendt Center's 8th Annual Conference from Oct. 15-16, 2015. David Brooks offers one answer. "Privacy is important to the development of full individuals because there has to be an interior zone within each person that other people don't see. There has to be a zone where half-formed thoughts and delicate emotions can grow and evolve, without being exposed to the harsh glare of public judgment. There has to be a place where you can be free to develop ideas and convictions away from the pressure to conform. There has to be a spot where you are only yourself and can define yourself. Privacy is important to families and friendships because there has to be a zone where you can be fully known. There has to be a private space where you can share your doubts and secrets and expose your weaknesses with the expectation that you will still be loved and forgiven and supported. Privacy is important for communities because there has to be a space where people with common affiliations can develop bonds of affection and trust. There has to be a boundary between us and them. Within that boundary, you look out for each other; you rally to support each other; you cut each other some slack; you share fierce common loyalties."

Genre and Futurity

lauren berlantVirginia Jackson considers the work of critic Lauren Berlant and in the process wonders what criticism means for us now and what genre might mean for us in the future: "Berlant wants that recognition to mean that genres can become the vehicles of social change, or at least of degrees of adjustment. She can skate the outlines of received genres with more precision than any of us, but she also wants to make those boundaries turn out toward a utopian horizon where the barriers between us may not exactly fall but will be illuminated as shared in what Berlant likes to call 'the history of the present.' As she said recently in an interview on the 'Society and Space' blog (as an old friend of mine once said, Berlant 'has a lot of language,' so the interview is a good genre for her, and the blogosphere a good generic medium, since so much of the language she has so much of can overflow and circulate there), 'it's never about shaming people's objects, it's always about creating better and better objects. It's always about creating better worlds, making it possible for us to think in more and different kinds of ways about how we relationally can move through life.' If for Arnold the function of criticism at the present time was to help us agree to be mutually and soberly bummed out, to move through life in a shared state of exile from literary scenes of fulfillment, distinguished only by our cultivated taste for more such disappointments, for Berlant the function of criticism at the present time is to create better worlds, worlds in which genres are not settled states of common disappointment and classed distinction in the experience and expression of that disappointment, but are instead signs and figures for shared world making."

Not Worth The...

booksTim Parks considers the relationship between literature and the paper that it's printed on: "With the arrival of print in the late fifteenth century, it was suddenly possible to start thinking of a mass audience; 20 million books had been printed in Europe by 1500. Yet it was the printing shops--often more than one if a book was popular--rather than the authors, who made the money. You might write out of a passion to get your ideas around, or out of megalomania--never a condition to be underestimated where writers are concerned--but there was still no steady money to be had producing writing of whatever kind. In economic terms, it was hardly worth insisting you were the author of a text, hence the anonymous book was rather more common than it is today. Meantime, with this new possibility of printing so many books it made sense to start thinking of all those people who didn't know Latin. The switch to writing in the vernacular had begun; this meant that, though more copies were being sold, most books were now trapped inside their language community. There were scholars capable of translating of course, and a book that made a big impression in one country would eventually be translated into another. But it took time, and it wouldn't happen if a book didn't impress in its original language. Nor for the most part were these translators under contract with publishers. Initially, they were simply scholars who translated what they were interested in and what they believed was worth disseminating. Think of that."


financial languageFranco Moretti and Dominique Pestre have a fascinating essay in the New Left Review that analyzes the important changes in vocabulary and grammar used by the World Bank in its Annual Reports from the 1960s to the present. Moretti and Pestre find significant shifts, noting a move from concrete nouns like "loans," "development," and "power" to abstract and technical nouns like "fair value," "portfolio," "derivative," "accrual," "equity," "hedging," "liquidity" and "liabilities." They trace the rise of what they call with a nod to Orwell "bankspeak." "Aside from individual words, it's the nature of the Bank's language that is changing: becoming more abstract, more distant from concrete social life; a technical code, detached from everyday communication and pared down to the economic factors crucial to the repayment of the debt. Solutions are disengaged from any specificity: they are the same for everybody, everywhere. Faced with the potentially devastating consequences of default, the Bank's chief objective is no longer development, but, more simply, the rescue of private lenders (Harpagon: 'My casket! My casket!'). The banker must be saved before the client: doubts have disappeared, and the Bank's core beliefs are hammered home over and over again: the economy must be strengthened by making it leaner; the public sector must be restructured to create favourable conditions for private business and the market; the state must shrink and become more efficient. Such 'solutions' transcend the need to respond to the debt crisis: they aim at social transformation through the return to an uncompromising liberalism."

Democracy And the Monopoly On Force

police reformTa-Nehisi Coates thinks we've thrown out all the tools of domestic statecraft, save one: "Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference. The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer. To ask, at this late date, why the police seem to have lost their minds is to ask why our hammers are so bad at installing air-conditioners. More it is to ignore the state of the house all around us. A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It's avoidance. It's a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems."

Hard Heads

nail houseThe Atlantic offers a stunning photo essay about the "nail houses" in China, properties whose owners have refused to sell to enable developments sprouting around them. The results are visually shocking, revealing both China's unstoppable growth and the stubborn individuality of Chinese homeowners.



Hidden Power

architectureIn the Financial Times, Edwin Heathcote writes about the changing face of architecture for nuclear power plants. "High quality global journalism requires investment. In Britain, home of the world's first civil nuclear power programme, the architect Sir Basil Spence was commissioned to design one of its earliest power stations, begun in 1959 in Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia, Wales. Spence, the designer of Coventry Cathedral, a symbol of postwar reconstruction, was arguably Britain's biggest architectural name at the time. Trawsfynydd is an elegant concrete mass that sits somewhere between Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's brick-mountain Bankside Power Station (now Tate Modern) in London, and a kind of picturesque castle. There had been local opposition to the plans and Spence's architecture represented an effort to allay fears and to give it presence and dignity. Walking around the crinkly tin sheds and anonymous industrial landscape of Sizewell B, completed in 1995 and still Britain's most recent nuclear power station, it seems that either those concerns have died away and the architecture is no longer considered important as a vehicle for reassurance, or that our culture has changed so radically that we now accept banality as an expression of safety. The concrete lump of the neighbouring Sizewell A, which was completed in 1966, still has some of the solidity we might expect from a nuclear power station. Its mass conveys its purpose, the heavy concrete expressed as what it is, an impenetrably dense, protective shell. At Sizewell B, everything is covered up, clad in the same corrugated metal sheet that has become the default language of anonymous roadside industry. There is no sense of celebration of this extraordinary technology. I asked Ian Bryant, head of planning at EDF Energy, what scope architects had in the design of new nuclear power stations, given the fearsome barrage of regulation they are subject to. 'They can try to ensure that they sit into the local environment,' he replies. 'Colour can make a real difference.' I'm not entirely sure how they could not sit into their natural environment but it does seem a shame that the architects' role has been reduced to choosing the paint."

amor_mundi_sign-upFeatured Events

joy connollyThe Life of Roman Republicanism with Joy Connolly

Joy Connolly, a Professor of Classics at New York University, will discuss her book The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton 2014), which examines key themes in Roman republican thought: freedom, recognition, antagonism, self-knowledge, irony, and imagination.

Free and open to the public!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bard College, Olin 204, 6:00 pm


human conditionHAC Virtual Reading Group - Session #7

HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.

For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at dbisson@bard.edu.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm



h. g. adlerTranslating the Holocaust: H. G. Adler as Writer and Scholar

This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.

Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.

Free and open to the public!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Location TBA, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm

privacy con 2015 (temp)SAVE THE DATE - 2015 FALL CONFERENCE

Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015

The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!

From the Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Michiel Bot discusses how Arendt's use of the term "savages" and "Dark Continent" in The Origins of Totalitarianism can advance our political thinking in the Quote of the Week. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we visit the Hannah Arendt Collection and appreciate the annotations Arendt made to her copy of a biography written about Leon Trotsky in this week's Library feature.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Amor Mundi 4/20/14



Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Is Capitalism a Social Good?

421A book captures the Zeitgeist rarely in the 21st century, especially a book written by an empirical economist, published by a University Press, and translated from French. And yet Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published by Harvard University Press, is suddenly everywhere. Andrew Hussey at The Guardian interviews Piketty, who argues that capitalism does not improve the quality of life for everyone. Piketty seeks to prove that capitalism is rigged in favor of the wealthy. In other words, the wealth of the wealthy increases faster than the income of the workers. His main contention is that over the centuries since the emergence of capitalism, return on capital tends to be greater than the growth of the economy. Which leads to Piketty’s final conclusion that increasing inequality is inevitable within capitalism – and will only get worse: “When I began, simply collecting data, I was genuinely surprised by what I found, which was that inequality is growing so fast and that capitalism cannot apparently solve it. Many economists begin the other way around, by asking questions about poverty, but I wanted to understand how wealth, or super-wealth, is working to increase the inequality gap. And what I found, as I said before, is that the speed at which the inequality gap is growing is getting faster and faster. You have to ask what does this mean for ordinary people, who are not billionaires and who will never will be billionaires. Well, I think it means a deterioration in the first instance of the economic well-being of the collective, in other words the degradation of the public sector. You only have to look at what Obama's administration wants to do – which is to erode inequality in healthcare and so on – and how difficult it is to achieve that, to understand how important this is. There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn't so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more.” That the wealthy get wealthier in capitalism may seem obvious to some; but capitalism is widely embraced by the poor as well as the rich because it increases productivity and supposedly makes everybody better off. Capitalism may make some filthy rich, so the story goes, but it also allows more mobility of status and income than pre-capitalist economies, thus opening possibilities to everyone. Piketty argues against these truisms. In the end, however, whether inequality is good or bad is not an empirical question, and no amount of empirical research can tell us whether capitalism is good or bad. What Piketty does show convincingly, is that capitalism will not lead to equality. For more on Piketty, see Roger Berkowitz’s essay at The American Interest.

Is Capitalist Inequality Really So Bad?

422Perhaps the best review of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is by Martin Wolf, the Financial Times columnist. Wolf gives an excellent summary of Piketty’s four “remarkable achievements” and then considers what they mean. He makes clear the importance of Piketty’s book. But he also raises the question Piketty leaves unasked: “Yet the book also has clear weaknesses. The most important is that it does not deal with why soaring inequality – while more than adequately demonstrated – matters. Essentially, Piketty simply assumes that it does. One argument for inequality is that it is a spur to (or product of) innovation. The contrary evidence is clear: contemporary inequality and, above all, inherited wealth are unnecessary for this purpose. Another argument is that the product of just processes must be just. Yet even if the processes driving inequality were themselves just (which is doubtful), this is not the only principle of distributive justice. Another – to me more plausible – argument against Piketty’s is that inequality is less important in an economy that is now 20 times as productive as those of two centuries ago: even the poor enjoy goods and services unavailable to the richest a few decades ago.” This does not mean that Wolf thinks increasing inequality is unimportant. Rightly, he turns to Aristotle to make this most-important point: “For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realization, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it.” You can read Eduardo Porter’s excellent review of the literature on the impact of wealth inequality on economic growth here. Of course, you should all read Piketty’s book for yourselves.

Fixed Records

423In an online interactive feature from The New York Times, an excellent example of what internet journalism can do well, John Jeremiah Sullivan recounts his recent search for 1930s blueswomen Elvie Thomas and Geeshie Wiley. Among his sources for the project was the blues scholar Mack McCormick, who has a mountain of blues material, photos and interviews as well as tracks, collected over several decades, and now organized into something called “The Monster.” McCormick has been largely unable to produce writing from his collection; as he's sitting on sources that no one else has, and that few have access to, this failure represents an extraordinary series of lacunas in blues history. Sullivan notes, however, that McCormick is still as significant a figure as the field has: “He is on record (in one of two or three notably good profiles done on him over the years) as saying that the subject of [blues guitarist Robert] Johnson has gone dead on him. And he has said since that part of him wishes he hadn’t let that one singer, that riddle of a man, consume him. Which is a human thing to feel . . . except for when you happen to know more than anyone on earth about a subject that loads of people in several countries want to know more about. Then your inability to produce becomes not just a personal problem but a cultural one. It’s plausible that the scope of research finally got too large for any one mind, even a uniquely brilliant one, to hold in orbit. The point here is not to accuse or defend him, but rather to point out that even his footnotes, even the fragments from his research that have landed in other scholars’ pages, have been enough to place him among the two or three most important figures in this field. He’s one of those people whose influence starts to show up everywhere, once you’re sensitized to it.” Sullivan’s essay is an excellent walk through the historian's craft, a peak into how the record is made, as it were. Although Arendt described the job of the historian as describing the world as it was, that task is more or less difficult depending on the preservation or availability of certain sources. Through a combination of resources and luck, Sullivan and his research assistant were able to piece together a little more than half the story he set out to tell; the rest is still absent, awaiting another curious investigator and another stroke of good fortune.

The Sacred and the Profane

Simonos Petra is a greek Orthodox monastery built on XIV century , in 1364 was enlarged by a serbian king ,, three times burned last time in 1891 with his library. Its located at the base of the Mount Athos with 2000 altitude . Agion Oros or Mount Athos iThere's a Greek mountain, Athos, home to a number of Orthodox monasteries, and no females; no women, no female animals. In a short profile of the space, Tom Whipple notes that it is both sacred and profane: “Athos is a place where a bearded octogenarian who has not seen a woman in 60 years can venerate the bones of a two-millennia-dead saint, then pull out a mobile phone to speak to his abbot. Where a pilgrim with a wooden staff in one hand can have a digital camera in the other. And where, in the dim light of dawn matins, I can look on a church interior that would be instantly recognizable to a pilgrim from five centuries ago. Maybe this is part of the reason I come: to play the time-traveler?” Elsewhere on the peninsula is a monastery under siege for having broken with the Orthodox Patriarch, and another that is believed to be in part responsible for Greece's financial crash more than half a decade ago. Even here, men who have repudiated the world find that they live within it.

Get To Work

425In an interview that covers his views on Ireland as a post-colonial site and the importance of gay themes in the Canon, Colm Toibin gives some advice to young writers: “I suppose the thing really is, you could suggest they might finish everything that they start. And the reason for that is, certainly with me, what happens is that something—an image, a memory, or something known, or something half thought of—stays in our mind, at some point or other it becomes a rhythm, and you write it down. Part of that is, you know it; you sort of know what you want to do. The chances are high of wanting to abandon it halfway through on the basis of, it really ceases to interest you because you know it already. And then you have to really push yourself to realize that other people don't know it. And that you're writing for communication, and that is not a private activity. Therefore you have to go on working—that's what the real work is maybe. But if you're young and starting off, it's so easy to abandon something at that point thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm not sure there's any more I can gain from the writing of this.' And the answer is: You don't matter anymore. Get to work.”

Seeing The World Through God

426Rod Dreher, who picked up Dante during a midlife crisis, suggests that the Divine Comedy is about learning to see the world as it is through the mediation of the divine: “Beatrice, a Florentine woman young Dante had loved from afar, and who died early, serves as a representation of Divine Revelation. What the poet says here is that on Earth she represented to him a theophany, a disclosure of the divine. When she died, Dante forgot about the vision of divine reality she stood for. He allowed his eyes to be turned from faith—the hope in ‘the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,’ as Scripture says—to a misdirected love for the transitory and worldly. This is how Dante ended up in the dark and savage wood. This is how I did, too. This is how many of us find ourselves there in the middle of the journey of our life. Dante’s pilgrimage, and the one we readers have taken with him, teaches us to see the world and ourselves as they really are and to cleanse through repentance and ascesis our own darkened vision through reordering the will. By learning to want for ourselves and for others what God wants, we become more like Him, and we come to see all things as He does."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Second Opportunity on Earth

427Gabriel Garcia Marquez has died. It is worth revisiting “The Solitude of Latin America,” Marquez’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The speech ends with these words: “On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, ‘I decline to accept the end of man.’ I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

Is it Possible to Be a Jewish Intellectual?

428In Haaretz (subscription required), sociologist Eva Illouz reprints her 2014 Andrea and Charles Bronfman Lecture in Israeli Studies, at the University of Toronto. Illouz considers Gershom Scholem’s accusation that Hannah Arendt had no lover for the Jewish people and her response, “How right you are that I have no such love, and for two reasons: First, I have never in my life ‘loved’ some nation or collective – not the German, French or American nation, or the working class, or whatever else might exist. The fact is that I love only my friends and am quite incapable of any other sort of love. Second, this kind of love for the Jews would seem suspect to me, since I am Jewish myself. I don’t love myself or anything I know that belongs to the substance of my being … [T]he magnificence of this people once lay in its belief in God – that is, in the way its trust and love of God far outweighed its fear of God. And now this people believes only in itself? In this sense I don’t love the Jews, nor do I ‘believe’ in them.” Illouz writes: “To better grasp what should strike us here, let me refer to another debate, one that had taken place just a few years earlier in France, where another intellectual’s position had also generated a storm. Upon receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm in 1957, Albert Camus was interviewed by an Arab student about his positions on the Algerian war. He famously answered, ‘People are now planting bombs in the tramways of Algiers. My mother might be on one of those tramways. If that is justice, then I prefer my mother.’ Camus’ statement provoked a ruckus in French intellectual circles. As Norman Podhoretz wrote, “When he declared that he chose his mother above justice, he was, as [Conor Cruise] O’Brien puts it, choosing ‘his own tribe’ against an abstract ideal of universal justice. A greater heresy against the dogmas of the left is hard to imagine.” Indeed, since the Dreyfus affair, at the end of the 19th century, intellectuals’ intervention in the public sphere had been defined by their claim to universality, a position that remained unchanged throughout the 20th century.… I evoke here Camus’ example only to better highlight how the position of the contemporary Jewish intellectual differs from what we may call the position of the intellectual in Europe. What was anathema to the European intellectual – to defend one’s group and family against competing universal claims – is, in fact, what is routinely expected from the Jewish intellectual – by which I mean not only the intellectual of Jewish origins, but the one who engages in a dialogue with his/her community…. Arendt’s refusal to respond to the needs of her group and the fury her positions generated is only one of the many occurrences in a long list of hostile reactions by the organized Jewish community to critique, defined here as a sustained questioning of a group’s beliefs and practices. (For a superb discussion of these issues, see Idith Zertal’s 2005 book Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.) In fact, over the last 30 years, one of the favorite exercises of various representatives of Jewish and Israeli communities has been to unmask the hidden anti-Zionist or anti-Jewish tenets of critique. I am not saying some of the critiques of Israel may not be motivated by anti-Semitism. I simply note that the suspicion of critique has become an elaborate cultural and intellectual genre in the Jewish world.

From The Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the blog, Lance Strate considers Arendt’s quotation, "The end of the old is not necessarily the beginning of the new." And in the Weekend Read, Roger Berkowitz looks at Timothy Shenk’s review of millennial Marxism and Thomas Piketty.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Shadow Dance of the Fiscal Cliff


The Hannah Arendt Center has followed the shadow dance of the fiscal cliff less for its fiscal than for its political lessons. While a deal was struck, it is hard not to be impressed by the breakdown of our political class. Like the Europeans, we are now officially kicking the can down the road, refusing to address our meaningful problems. There is, in short, no political will and no political leadership with the courage and willingness to act in ways that might help us imagine a new way out of our predicament.

One could say it is the fault of voters. But there is a funny thing happening in politics. The House of Representatives, which is supposed to be the most populist of the major branches of government, is the one branch of government that is calling loudly for painful spending cuts and resisting the rise of our out-of-control debt. True the House is calling for tax cuts, but so too did the Senate and the President. What distinguishes the House now is its insistence on cutting spending. The Senate and President—imagined to be more protected from popular will—are instead combining now to cut taxes, increase spending, and keep the gravy train of government-subsidized stimulus flowing. In a strange way, it is the political body most responsive to voters that is at least calling for change—even if the House Republicans refuse to be honest about what those changes would be or what they would mean. Why or how has this political inversion happened?

One of the few Senators who voted against the compromise is Michael Bennett, the Democratic Senator from Colorado who was supposed to be cliff jumping in Vail (it’s nice here!) but stayed in Washington to vote “No.” Interviewed by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, Bennett says: “Going over the cliff is a lousy choice and continuing to ignore the fiscal realities that we face is a lousy choice.” Bennett, a free thinking Democrat, knows that things have to change.

"The burden of proof has to shift from the people who want to change the system to the people who want to keep it the same,” he said. “I think if we can get people focused to do what we need to do to keep our kids from being stuck with this debt that they didn’t accrue, you might be surprised at how far we can move this conversation.

But what is it about the system that needs to change? Some see this as simply a matter of policy. Nouriel Roubini, writing today in the Financial Times, thinks taxes need to go up for all Americans to help support a welfare state that is drastically underfunded and yet ever-so necessary:

Neither Democrats nor Republicans recognise that maintaining a basic welfare state, which is right and necessary in our age of globalisation, rapid technological change and demographic pressure, implies higher taxes for the middle class as well as for the rich. A deal that extends unsustainable tax cuts for 98 per cent of Americans is therefore a pyrrhic victory for Mr. Obama.

Roubini may very well be right. But as he himself recognizes, the political will to exercise this transformation is simply not there. What that means policy wise, I do not know.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

The Bureaucracy of Sandy


The after effects of Super-storm Sandy are felt from the beaches to the statehouses. First of all, let’s realize it was not a hurricane, but a freakish combination of storm systems. Super-storm is more truthful than hurricane. Whatever it was, it has upended lives, and politics.

The Financial Times reports today that Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey has now joined NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in requesting not only emergency aid to repair the damage caused by the storm, but also preventative money to build dunes, use eminent domain to purchase property, and generally re-engineer the New Jersey coastline.

The political transformation here is lost on few. As the FT writes:

Mr. Christie, a Republican, has previously sounded more skeptical than Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, about using state powers to dictate how the state was rebuilt. But he said on Wednesday he might take away local towns’ power to grant “easements” to homeowners objecting to new dunes blocking their sea views and would not rule out using government powers to purchase properties it believed were in the wrong place.

“I have to protect the Jersey shore, both as an economic engine and as a cultural engine,” Mr. Christie said.

The desire to take away local powers and give them to states and to take away state powers and give them to the federal government is neither a democratic nor a republican idea anymore. While the party of the elephant may give lip service to local governance, it has rarely, if ever, backed that up with action. As is now well known, the federal government has grown as fast if not faster under Republican Presidents than it has under democratic.

Hannah Arendt argued that the greatest danger to freedom in the United States was the rise of a large and bureaucratic government. She worried, as she once wrote, that the true threat to freedom was the sheer size of America alongside the rise of a technocracy. The sheer size of the country combined with the rising bureaucracy threatened to swallow the love for freedom she saw as the potent core of American civic life.

Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo may well be their respective parties’ nominees for President in 2016. They are both deeply popular and have taken a pragmatic and largely centrist approach to governing at a time of financial crisis and natural disaster. And yet, from an Arendtian angle, it is striking that both governors have so internalized the view that problems are to be solved by bureaucrats and technocrats rather than on a local level.

That the bureaucratic approach is so entrenched should not be a surprise. It is both a consequence of a further spur to the retreat from politics that Hannah Arendt describes. Even Christie’s insistence that he must save the Jersey shore as an economic engine shows the near complete victory of economic thinking over politics.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Does the President Matter?


Does the President Matter? Consider this quotation from Jurek Martin in today's Financial times:

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may speak, sometimes even to real audiences but more often to fat cat fundraisers, but their words fall on deaf ears if not empty wallets. Lots of people speak for them, in the strange languages known to advertising and political consultants, but what they say is ephemeral and leaves, beyond the daily news fix, “not a wrack behind”, as Shakespeare put it. Yet they are fueled by piles of money, which means they speak more and more – to lesser and lesser effect.

Lawrence Lessig is of course right to worry about the corrupting influence of money on our elections. But the greatest effect of all this money is the drowning out of meaningful speech in a throbbing sea of money-driven sound bites, consultant-approved platitudes, and poll-tested attacks. Everyone must stay on message, which means that no one says or does anything. In such a system, how can the President matter or make a difference in the world?

If you have an answer, enter our 2012 Thinking Challenge by answering the question: "How might the President Matter in the 21st Century?"

Learn more here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

The Crisis of European Politics


Greece voted on Sunday and the headline account shows that the right of center moderates won. This was presented as good news, for it means a continued embrace of the Euro and years more of austerity. But there are other lessons to glean from the Greek election.

1.  Extremism is rising quickly in Greece. As the Financial Times reports,

The parliament, for the first time in Greek history, will be full of extremists. Besides the neo-nazis and a Stalinist communist party there is Syriza, whose leader is a fan of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. How did Greece, the birthplace of democracy, come to have a parliament full of hammers, sickles and swastikas?

2. The Greeks are being asked to suffer for years more, but with little or no hope in sight. Here is what the NY Times reports today, an opinion from one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the Greek crisis:

“Greece will be forced to return to the drachma and devalue, and the default will cause bank runs and money flowing into Germany and the United States as the only viable safe haven bets,” he declared the day before Sunday’s Greek elections, irrespective of which party would win. “Greece will default because there is no other choice regardless of anyone’s politics.”

Almost all of the loans that Greece receives from Europe go directly to pay off the interest on loans to banks in Germany and elsewhere. Greece is neither paying down its debt nor investing in its future. The result is that the Greeks will suffer through years more of austerity and will likely be in no better position in a few years than they are now.

3. The combination of 1 and 2 above do not bode well for European politics in the coming years.

When Hannah Arendt looked to the Origins of Totalitarianism in the 20th century, she began her analysis with the financial speculation and subsequent crash of 1870. The ensuing crisis led to a weakening of nation-states and the rise of imperialism, all of which dissolved the traditional political and moral limits that had for centuries formed the structural foundation of European civilization.

As Europe struggles now to overcome national political limits as a response to the financial and banking crisis, it faces once again a political crisis mixed with an economic crisis. Europe is in trouble and they are not alone. But in Europe, unlike in the U.S. or in Japan, the financial crisis is inextricable from a crisis of nationalism and sovereignty. The potential for nationalist extremism on the one hand is real. On the other hand, there is also the potential for a weakening of national political traditions and the rise of technocratic and bureaucratic rule that, for all its rationalism, weakens moral and ethical restraints.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

The Technocrats to the Rescue, Part 4


How many times can we watch the latest European movie? Once again Europe is buckling under the weight of debt and austerity. And once again, Greece, the birthplace of democracy, has led the democratic leaders of Europe to shun their responsibilities and beg for technocratic saviors.

As the Financial Times reports, European leaders are as bankrupt as their economies and they are seeking to be bailed out politically and economically by Mario Draghi, the unelected President of the European Central Bank.

To the frustration of Mario Draghi, its president, the European Central Bank is once again being eyed as a possible saviour of Europe’s monetary union.  Since he became president last November, Mr Draghi has urged bolder action by politicians to strengthen public finances and build effective “firewalls” against spreading crises. Earlier this month he scolded governments for creating a European Financial Stability Facility that “could hardly be made to work”. He saw the unelected ECB’s role as strictly limited.  Instead, eurozone politicians, led by François Hollande, France’s new president, have sought to turn the tables, demanding action from Frankfurt.

As one person the FT quotes says, “There is a constant frustration at the ECB with politicians.” Sounds familiar. It is not only in Europe that politicians have refused to lead and take responsibility for solving our growing and increasingly insoluble problems.

It is easy to blame politicians. But keep in mind, they are elected. And that may be the problem. For it is we, those self-interested and apparently spoiled folks who elect them, who refuse to consider tax raises or austerity, or both, which would actually be necessary to bring our financial houses into order. This is especially true in Greece where voters have repeatedly refused to honestly and pragmatically accept the reforms needed to right the ship of the Greek state.

Which is why Amartya Sen's Op-Ed in the NY Times Tuesday sounds so shrill. Sen rightly sees that democracy in Europe is being replaced by technocratic fiat, and this understandably bothers him. He writes:

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Europe’s current malaise is the replacement of democratic commitments by financial dictates — from leaders of the European Union and the European Central Bank, and indirectly from credit-rating agencies, whose judgments have been notoriously unsound.

But Sen's response is out of touch. If the Greeks would just be given an opportunity to publicly discuss the matter and engage in a rational public discourse, they would be able to take appropriate steps. In his own words:

Participatory public discussion — the “government by discussion” expounded by democratic theorists like John Stuart Mill and Walter Bagehot — could have identified appropriate reforms over a reasonable span of time, without threatening the foundations of Europe’s system of social justice. In contrast, drastic cuts in public services with very little general discussion of their necessity, efficacy or balance have been revolting to a large section of the European population and have played into the hands of extremists on both ends of the political spectrum.

This is of course a good point. It would be best if the Greeks were to engage in. It would be best if the Greeks were to engage in participatory public discussion leading toward appropriate reforms. But this doesn't seem to be happening, resulting in the draconian cuts, which, yes, are revolting to a large section of the European population. Unmentioned is the fact that other Europeans are revolted by the fact that Greeks for years have worked pitifully few hours in comparison to other Europeans, have paid significantly lower taxes, and supported a political patronage system that creates an untouchable class of political bureaucrats who live well for doing very little. The New York Times reports, today, on the class of Greek plutocrats who for years have avoided taxes and now, when times are tough, are abandoning philanthropies in Greece and secreting their money to tax havens. If the Greeks won't help Greece, why should the Germans?

The point is not simply to punish the Greeks for their past transgressions (although that too is not out of place), but that Germans also no longer trust the Greeks and refuse to go on paying for their profligate ways. And since the Greeks have not and seemingly will not democratically make the changes to their lifestyles that are required by their economic position, they are putting their hopes in undemocratically elected technocrats at the European Central Bank to save them.

The Greeks are not alone in seeking to trade democracy for technocracy. As I have written here and here and here over the past months, the trend toward technocratic governance is growing as people around the world lose faith not simply in democratic leaders, but in democracy itself. Around the world, democracies are electing politicians who are handing off power to non-democratically elected technocrats. This is happening in Europe and also here in the U.S.  I am sure some of "the people" disagree with this. But more and more seem fine with it.

It is easy to blame the politicians, just as it has been easy for years to blame the press. But as Edward Luce writes in his recent book Time to Start Thinking, the real problem with democracy is us. He focuses on America:

Americans reflexively single out Washington, D.C., as the cause of their ills. As this book will explore, however, Washington's habits are rooted in American society. Blaming politicians has turned into a lazy perennial of modern American life.

The problem as Luce sees it is that left and right are caught in a thoughtless nostalgia for a golden age that no longer exists. The left, he writes,

yearns for the golden age of the 1950s and '60s when the middle class was swelling and the federal government sent people to the moon. Breadwinners worked eight hours a day in the factory and could bank on "Cadillac" health care coverage, a solid urban or suburban lifestyle, and five weeks' vacation a year.

On the other side, the right is nostalgic for

the godly virtues of the Founding Fathers from whom their country has gravely strayed. People stood on their own two feet and upheld core American values. It was a mostly small town place of strong families, where people respected the military and were involved in their community churches.

Luce understands not only that both these visions are nostalgic, but that they are preventing us from thinking honestly and seriously about our present. The problem is that thinking honestly today requires accepting sacrifice.

The wealthy and the upper middle classes (not just the 1% but the top 20%) will have to pay more in taxes. The poor and the middle classes will have to receive smaller pensions, work longer, and get fewer governmental services in return. Maybe citizens will have to do public service. Standards of living across the board will be hit. This is the payback for decades of debt-infused living that we all need to confront. Luce is right, it is time to start thinking.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Saving Pensions: “Technocrats, Not Grandstanding Idealists”


Public pensions are a mess. Ok, where is the hope? Yesterday Gillian Tett offered a rare glimmer of good news in a story about Rhode Island treasurer Gina Raimondo. But the good news comes with a bitter aftertaste.

Rhode Island is a small state, but it had one of the worst public pension deficits in the country. Forced to act, it has cut pensions for its workers, raised the retirement age from 62 to 67, and replaced the defined benefits pension (which guarantees a certain amount every year) with a partial defined contribution scheme (which pays out a pension based on how much the retiree has saved). These actions have angered many workers and unions, who are suing the state, but they have also saved the state pension system; one result is that the workers will be receiving some pension, even if it is less than they were promised.

The solution, as Raimondo articulates it, is above all to focus ruthlessly “on the math and facts, to come up with a solution.” Technocrats, not grandstanding idealists, are required.

The preference for technocrats over idealists illustrates a common approach to our extraordinary economic problems around the country: to hand over difficult political judgments to technicians. The same approach is leading the people to hand over the levels of government to technocrats in Greece, Italy, Suffolk County, and now Detroit. Dissatisfied with democratically elected leaders, the people are increasingly craving a government run by businessmen and accountants. It seems that the ruthless calculation of profit and loss is the last refuge of truth in our age.

Read more about what is going on in Detroit here. Read more about the pension crisis here and here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

The End of Democracy in Detroit?


It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others. We have been living in passive agreement with Churchill's witticism for half a century. But slowly, harrowingly, fatalistically, people around the world are giving up on democracy.  

Greece, the birthplace of democracy, and Italy (well, it's Italy) are now both governed by unelected technocratic governments charged with carrying out austerity programs that democratically elected leaders would not or could not bring about.

According to Gillian Tett, the Financial Times columnist, "the situation calls for very firm, forward-looking action that is almost impossible in a rowdy democratic political system at the moment." Tett is not alone in seeing the failure of democratic leadership in crises and the inability of democratic politicians to allocate pain and sacrifice amongst their constituents.

We in the United States are showing a similar predilection to trade democracy for technocratic management. Michigan is at the forefront of this trend. Governor Rick Snyder has been aggressive in appointing emergency managers to take control of city finances. In Pontiac, Flint, Benton Harbor and other Michigan cities, the mayors and town councils have been fired and rendered obsolete, replaced by a manager appointed by the governor.

In New York, Nassau County is now under the rule of an "oversight board" that controls its budget and finances. In Michigan, financial managers have the power to void labor contracts, privatize public services, and dismiss elected officials. These managers serve at the will of the governor, but they have no set term.

Tomorrow we may learn whether Detroit, Michigan's biggest and once proudest city, will also succumb to an emergency manager. The only alternative, it seems, is a consent decree with the State that will turn the city over to a manager jointly selected by the city and the state from a slate of candidates approved by the governor. The problem, once again, is that democratic governments have simply been unable to make the hard decisions needed. The result is that Detroit is bankrupt and in need of a state bailout and the state is treating Detroit like the spoiled child it is, just as the European Union treats Greece and Italy. Money will come, but only if the children agree to be treated like children.

I can only point out so many times that Wall Street bankers also acted like spoiled children, but they received their bailouts and undeserved bonuses without the demeaning financial oversight. Hypocrisy, however, is not an argument for or against such oversight, even if it does reveal that there are issues beyond simple economic calculation at play. In Europe, there are prejudices against the laziness of southern peoples, and here in the U.S. racial prejudices are no doubt active, as can be seen by one commentator's likening Detroit's citizens to addicts:

As those of us in surrounding communities watch the ongoing tragedy unfolding in Detroit, we really need to hope that this once great city can stop its decline, and begin to recover. But just like with an alcoholic, the city's so-called leaders must first admit they have a problem, and that they are unable to fix it on their own. Unfortunately, they do not appear to have reached that point yet. I guess a nice way of putting it would be to say that they are in denial.

Patronizing rhetoric aside, the basic problem is that the people of Detroit—like the people of Greece and Italy—are unwilling to govern themselves and are welcoming technocrats to take over that task.   We witness once again how easily people will abandon democratic freedoms for the promise of a bailout. The current argument in Detroit is less about whether to give up self-government—a foregone conclusion—but how much money Detroit can extract in the deal for doing so.

The Romans had a provision in their law for the appointment of a dictator during emergencies, especially at war. A dictator, as Andreas Kalyvas reminds us, was not a tyrant. A dictator in Roman law was a  'temporary tyranny by consent' while a tyrant was a 'permanent dictator.' The Roman Republic recognized that crises required decisive action that a sprawling democracy was frequently unable to muster. The dictator was not illegal, but was a constitutionally approved office that was appointed for a set term, after which time power would revert back to the people. In other words, a dictator was a constitutionally regulated and democratically agreed upon safety valve for the failures of democracy.

Modern democracies have largely avoided such emergency powers, and for good reasons. It seems, however, that such resistance is fading. Will it be until we have no choice but to appoint an emergency financial manager to do the job we won't do for ourselves? But then again, who would appoint such a person?

For Hannah Arendt, this was and remains a crucial question. For human beings are political beings who actualize their freedom in public action with others. The entire premise of what Arendt once called the "dictatorial intervention" is to replace politics with the temporary tyranny of the educator. It is to admit our immaturity and call for a tyrant who will treat us as children. And yet that is, precisely, what it seems we want.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Pensions: The Unraveling Fiction


How big is the pension crisis in the United States? As I wrote last week, The Pew Charitable Trust has issued a report that there is a whopping $1 trillion dollar gap between the pensions promised to state public employees and the money that has been set aside to pay those pensions. But I also said that many people think that gap is actually much bigger.

The states' calculations assume a rosy 8% or even 10% return on their investments. The Pew report shows that even with those unrealistic assumptions, there will be a $1 trillion gap, since the states are underfunding their pension funds even based on optimistic returns.

Recently, Gillian Tett of the Financial Times talked to a few academics about the question and learned why the gap is actually $3-5 trillion dollars, and not simply $1 trillion. The basic problem is that low interest rates (now around 2%) mean that the investment on pension funds is not returning close to the hoped for amount. As Tett reports:

Thus academics, such as Joshua Rauh of Northwestern University, think that if a more realistic rate of return were used, this would reveal that state pension funds are now underfunded to the tune of $3tn-$4tn. Other observers are even gloomier. “This $4tn figure is a lower bound,” argues Robert Merton, economics professor at MIT. “Liabilities as reported by state and local governments seem to creep steadily up with each report due to ‘actuarial losses’ or overly generous assumptions about mortality and worker behaviour. In recent years, these have added growth of about 4-5 per cent per year to total liabilities.” And, of course, the longer that US interest rates – and bond yields – remain ultra low, the worse this underfunding gap becomes.

Tett's essay makes for a sobering read. As she rightly points out, this problem cannot be ducked forever. Remember, the 2009 bailout that President Obama pushed through was $900 billion, slightly under $1 trillion. We are talking about a shortfall in state budgets of $3-5 trillion in coming years. This is enormous and the effect on state governments and public services will be disastrous. But the very worst effect will be on all of those public employees who have been counting on contractually guaranteed pensions who will, I fear, learn what workers in Rhode Island and Alabama recently learned: such contractual guarantees don't mean much.

What does it mean to have a fact-based politics? This is a question that Hannah Arendt struggled with. First in her writings on totalitarianism, she saw that at the core of totalitarian regimes was the need to keep alive a coherent fantasy that motivated the mass movements supporting the regimes. When inconvenient facts appeared, they simply had to be eradicated.

Later, writing during the Vietnam war and in response to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt argued that lies came to serve not totalitarian movements, but well-meaning idealists and technocrats who convinced not only others but even themselves that their lies were in the service of a winnable and noble cause.

Today we face the unraveling of a huge fiction. While the United States is still a wealthy country, we are not as wealthy as we have pretended to be over the last 15 years. But instead of addressing this self-deception, we are continuing to demand higher pensions and better medical care without actually asking who is going to pay for such services. It is a nice slogan to say that pensions and healthcare are human rights. But the current way we are achieving such human rights is by lying to ourselves, and, most pointedly, to the public employees who will see their promised pensions and healthcare evaporate during their retirement.

It would be nice if one of the Presidential candidates in either party would actually discuss the crisis in state pensions. But that would require courage and leadership, not to mention a willingness to have an honest conversation about the fact that this country continues to live beyond its means and promise benefits it cannot afford.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

Confronting Reality on Wall Street


This week, Greg Smith announced his resignation as an executive from Goldman Sachs in a highly publicized Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, aptly titled “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs.”  The letter describes a transformation in the “culture” of the giant investment firm that has gone from a business with integrity to one which is now “as toxic and destructive” as Smith has ever seen it during his twelve year tenure. “To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money.”

Such behavior being tied to a Wall Street firm is not exactly surprising. And in Goldman's case, one wonders where Mr. Smith has been. In the last few years, a number of Goldman's clients have sued the bank, including ACA Financial Guaranty, Basis Capital, an Australian hedge fund, and ABP, a Dutch pension fund. Each argues that Goldman materially harmed them by selling them bad products. And Goldman already paid out $500 Million dollars to settle the Abacus case, in which Goldman was accused of illegally profiting by deceptively selling worthless paper to its customers.

There is a sense in which one looks at Mr. Smith's holier than thou revelation that Goldman was not the noble corporation he once thought it was and asks: really? Haven't you read anything Michael Lewis has written over the last 10 years? Not to mention Matt Taibi—the author of a take down of the mythic Goldman Sachs culture that was published two years ago.

Smith derides his former employer for focusing on profit above the well-being of the client. He puts this is stark business terms. He writes:

It astounds me how little senior management gets a basic truth: If clients don’t trust you they will eventually stop doing business with you. It doesn’t matter how smart you are.

What Smith takes as a simple truth, is anything but. Trust is in short supply, and yet people work with Goldman and others because they believe that Goldman will make them money. As long as they think that Goldman will make them money, they don't really care that Goldman will make more money or that Goldman is looking out for itself. Clients continue to flock to Goldman because making money is what everyone cares about, not trust. One client of Goldman Sachs was even quoted as calling Smith “naïve” for believing that the business he is in was ever about anything but profit.

Frank Portnoy, writing in the Financial Times, argues that what is really at stake here is the definition of a client. Goldman is now a huge public firm with a few big clients it serves as advisors, and then thousands if not millions of smaller clients who simply buy its products. Goldman needs to have the trust of its major clients, but not is smaller ones.  Just as Coca-Cola has an obligation to make sure that what it is selling is actually Coca-Cola, Goldman has a responsibility to sell you what it tells you it is selling you. But neither Coca-Cola nor Goldman are obligated to tell you that their products aren't healthy for your body or your wallet.

The Goldman myth is just that, at least today. After Goldman went public it transformed from a small investment bank with $1.4 billion in investments in 1998 to a huge corporation with investments of $13.96 billion in 2008, using a leverage ration of 26 percent. Does anyone really think that such a company is not driven by the bottom line?

Reconciling ourselves to reality—telling ourselves the truth—is one of the first demands of ethical life.

One such truth is that business today is very different than it used to be. One needs to confront and comprehend such a truth, especially if you want to resist it. And that is the problem with too many of the responses to Greg Smith's letter.

Yes, Smith seems naive and snarky. And why did he give us his resume at the end of his letter? He clearly has some issues. But the basic point he raises—that business should be conducted with some basic ethical standards beyond that of minimally following the letter of the law—is one worth discussing. There are some clients who want to work with bankers that treat them both kindly and respectfully, and they should know to avoid swimming with the sharks. And there is a real question whether pension funds and other institutions are sophisticated enough to swim in the waters with the likes of Goldman. And finally there is the worry that so many of our brightest young people want to work for firms at which the unmitigated search for profit—restrained only by the letter of the law—is the cultural demand. We need more discussions of such questions. So, as distasteful as I found Smith's letter, I must admit I am happy he published it.

A better airing of many of these same issues happened at the Hannah Arendt Center's 2009 Conference, The Intellectual Origins of the Financial Crisis. A number of our panelists touched precisely on this question of the cultural change in business and Wall Street in particular. The book of essays based on that conference will be published this year.

In the book is included an interview with Vincent Mai, at the time the Chairman and Partner of AEA Investors. In this interview, Mai offers an insiders' perspective on the cultural changes that the financial world has undergone. With more eloquence and also more awareness than Greg Smith, Mai offers an account of an inverted world, one in which trust, reputation, and respect have been replaced by a whole new set of values.

I don’t mean that everybody was a saint and today they’re all sinners. Far from it. But there was a set of ground rules that governed the way you did business which imposed a discipline which was central to the way Wall Street worked. It was the same in all the firms. And I’ve watched with a combination of fascination and horror at the way the world has changed, turned upside down.

Mai's story of the way the world of Wall St. has been turned upside down is fascinating reading, and worth more of your time than another 10 commentaries on Greg Smith. The book with Mai's interview won't be out for a few months still, but for now you can read it here. I recommend you do so for your weekend read.



Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".